NEWS- Tidying up: Cismont dump owners fined $200

Doris and Cecil Gardner leave Albemarle General District Court, where they represented themselves and got off with a $200 fine instead of the $1,700 the County wanted.

A January 12 aerial view of the Gardner property, the day after Albemarle County filed suit against the couple.

The couple whose long-running illegal junkyard has kept Albemarle officials scrambling got their day in court, and they got out with a fine of just $200.

At issue in Albemarle General District Court May 28 were the county's claims that junkyard owners Cecil and Doris Gardner missed four deadlines to clean up their 16-acre Campbell Road property that Albemarle officials had, at various points, claimed was grandfathered.

"I've asked you the last 30 years– we've had people come [from the county]– whether we're grandfathered in," said Doris Gardner, who acted as her and her husband's own counsel, to county zoning inspector John Jones. "Does the county agree this has been going on 30 years?"

"Yes, for quite awhile," agreed Jones.

The saga of the Cismont dump started with neighbors' complaints in 1976. The debris hit the fan January 4, 2005, with a conflagration that could be seen for miles. That's when Albemarle determined that oops, the junkyard was not grandfathered after all– a ruling the county had failed to make following the great tire fire of 1984 that burned for almost two weeks.

For three years Albemarle monitored the Gardners' massive cleanup efforts, while neighbors groused that the couple had been coddled when deadlines were missed. In April 2007, the Board of Supervisors agreed to one last deadline: December 31. When inspectors visited the property January 10 and still found junk, the county filed suit.

"Although the cleanup was proceeding, the property was still a junkyard," testified Jones. "The cleanup was not complete."

According to Jones, the progress the couple has made since the county's January filing has been "amazing," but he noted that there is still material there that makes it a "junkyard."

Judge Robert Downer denied the county's request that the Gardners be fined $1,700 for four missed deadlines, instead fining them $200 for one violation on January 10. He noted that the  county failed to provide Board minutes showing the supervisors had voted on the December 31 cleanup deadline. "I have no doubt it's December 31," said Downer, "but it's the county's burden of proof."

At times, the judge advised Doris Gardner on witness examination techniques after Deputy County Attorney Greg Kamptner objected that she sounded like she was testifying: "Don't ask compound questions," suggested Downer. "Keep the questions short, and don't add any facts that haven't already been brought out."

Both sides seemed pleased with the $200 fine. The Gardners declined to comment after the hearing, but their daughter, Linda Shifflett, offered some thoughts.

"We want it finished and done. We're not vindictive," she said. "We're satisfied we have a few more things to do. It's a matter of tidying.

"What we consider tidy," continued Shifflett, "may be different from what the neighbors think– and they can move."